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The Brilliance of Stanley Kubrick

Theo Mohamed

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Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an American film director and is widely regarded as one of the industry’s best in history. Although he was born in New York City, he spent most of his adult life living in England and seldom did much but work in the 40 years before he passed away. He was well known for having extremely high expectations for his film and often took control of most aspects of production. For most of his films he not only directed but also wrote the screenplay and produced them. I had heard stories of The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey but had never taken the time to watch any of his films. Over the course of 4 days I decided to immerse myself in his work and watched the four most iconic and intelligent films he made over the course of his life. My mini film festival lineup started off with 2001 which was followed by A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and finally, one of the most iconic horror films of the 20th century: The Shining.

Science-fiction has always had a large following but fans of science fiction have always been considered to be social outliers. The genre is frequently dismissed as being “nerdy” or “lame” for one simple reason: it lacks artistic flare. When Stanley Kubrick produced, wrote, and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey, he brought exactly what was missing from science-fiction. In lieu of using fantastic technology created out of convenience, Kubrick set out to make 2001 an accurate and practical prediction of the future. What is truly astounding about 2001 is that it was produced 1968. The film was created without the use of CGI and used actual set pieces, as well as many intricately designed models, to produce some of the most stunning visuals ever created. Kubrick also created a truly brilliant soundscape in the film. When there is music, it is classical and adds levity to the film but, more often than not, there is no music in the film. For example, each time either of the two conscious astronauts aboard the spacecraft are in space, the only sound that can be heard is their heavy breathing. The rhythmicity of the breath builds tension and creates anxiety in the viewer. Kubrick is a master at manipulating the emotions of his audience and 2001 is an exemplary piece of film in every scope of the medium.

The 1971 film A Clockwork Orange follows the leader of a youth gang as he is betrayed by his peers and sentenced to prison. In an attempt to shorten his time under incarceration he volunteers for an experimental “brainwashing” treatment whose goal is to force the subject to associate violence and obscenity (particularly pornography) with a feeling of distress and sickness. The treatment is successful and the protagonist, Alex DeLarge, is released. The film is brilliant for similar reasons to those of 2001 but also stands out in its own right. The score comprises of about 90% Beethoven which is reinforced as a favourite of Alex’s throughout the movie. The symphony used the most is Beethoven’s Ninth which is generally seen to be quite uplifting and cheerful. Kubrick creates a brilliant antithesis between the music he uses and all the events of the film. Every event is, in at least one way, bizarre or emotionally disturbing which makes the story extremely unpredictable. In addition, Kubrick once again exercises his skill in building a speculative-fiction world, a prediction of what is to come in London. He creates an aesthetic that is an extension of the mid-century modern style that the public was pursuing at the time which adds realism. A Clockwork Orange is neither a utopian nor a dystopic prediction of what is to come but an honest realisation of a possible future where obscenity and violence are viewed as the root of all evil.

The Vietnam War is a defining chapter of America’s history. It has been the frequent study of filmmakers for the simple reason of it having so many cultural implications. Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 telling of the war titled Full Metal Jacket examines the war through a different lens than is typically chosen. Films like Forrest Gump and Born on The Fourth of July both consider the impacts of the war on a particularly wide scope. They both examine the reactions of the general public as well as the impacts, both physical and mental, the war had on the soldiers who fought it. Full Metal Jacket is the story of one platoon of marine recruits going through basic training, going to Vietnam and what they experience while they are there. By far the most impactful and well composed section of Full Metal Jacket is approximately the first hour. Watching the recruits undergo verbal and physical abuse by their drill sergeant is very stressful in a way. Kubrick rarely uses highly stylized editing and is fond of long takes which are both aspects of his filmmaking that are very prevalent in FMJ. The length of the shots forces the viewer to feel like an observer of an actual event because the perspective is not constantly changing. The training section of the film culminates in the developmentally challenged recruit nicknamed Private Pile (Vincent D’Onofrio) kills both the drill sergeant and himself in the bathroom. The intensity and stress within this scene is truly disturbing and D’Onofrio’s performance may be the best of the movie. Overall, FMJ falls short of the stunning nature of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange for a few reasons. The pacing of the movie is not consistent and the film feels as though it is dragging at some points during the segment set in Vietnam. In addition, Kubrick’s future visualization is not present and the film is not as aesthetically unique as his others.

People have always had an affinity and love for horror films. Since the inception of the medium, monster films and tales of superstition have become some of the most iconic in history. Stanley Kubrick had always had a gift for creating tension and suspense, both of which are integral parts of a horror narrative. His 1981 rendition of Stephen King’s The Shining is widely recognized one of the best pieces of horror ever to be produced. What makes The Shining so disturbing is its chilling contrast between the leading character Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) behaviour and the rest of the events of the film. At the beginning of the film the mood is quite light and the family of three is having a nice time taking care of the hotel but Jack’s mood is tense and irritable. It takes nearly nothing to set him off and he makes his family miserable. Over the course of the film, the mood begins to get darker and more uneasy. As this happens, Jack Torrence begins to develope a chillingly cheerful mood. The writer who had claimed to be in the process of writing his new book had instead written the words “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” over and over. The most chilling thing that The Shining does is take something as inherently happy and cheerful as a smile and make it terrifying. Kubrick twists Jack Nicholson’s ear to ear smile into a symbol of insanity and terror.

Stanley Kubrick is an example of a truly genius director. True genius is most evident when someone knowingly breaks convention and the end product is better because of it. Throughout all of his works, Kubrick kept one thing constant: his shot composition. Stanley Kubrick’s shots are all quite similar. They typically share three common characteristics: they are usually long, he uses moving tracking shots frequently, and he almost always focuses his shots using one point perspective. The only rule he really breaks is the placement of his subject within the frame. Typically, directors are taught to compose their shots using “The Rule of Thirds” where the frame is split into a 3×3 grid. Kubrick seldom follows this rule and instead prefers to compose his shots using one point perspective. He focuses the shot on the direct centre of the frame with all lines leading to that point. It creates an interesting and at times eerie effect. The perfect balance shouldn’t work but for some reason when he does it, it heightens the scene and looks brilliant. The technique has been used by Wes Anderson as well, who has been influenced by Kubrick in more than just one way. He creates an overarching contrast in his films by using such mathematically perfect shots to depict off-putting and often disturbing stories which is what immediately sets his work apart from that of other directors. Kubrick’s work must be the continual study of all those interested in film and film production as there is no one who innovated more within his era of the industry than he did.

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The Brilliance of Stanley Kubrick